Nicholas Quirke was fasting on 6 April 2021. The gains in weight loss were perilously close to being eroded by the excess of Tong Sui and food consumed over the previous 6 days and as he was lunching at Peng’s parents at the approaching weekend and not wanting to insult them by being finicky about his food then serious action was required. A 48 hour fast followed by raw food and intermittent fasting for the rest of the week should help him to recover the ground he had lost to his greed. It was back to work too and as the temperatures were now rising he was keen to get out on the bike and enjoy the sights of the city. As a youth he had loved cycling the streets of London but the undulating nature of the landscape meant it was always something of a chore managing the dips and troughs, the twists and turns of some journeys across the city. The flat plateau that Beijing was built upon was easy to navigate and the grid system of streets made it remarkably easy to stay on track and made peddling away, even for and hour a simple task. The school was a 30 minute cycle ride and with having no lunch to mark the passing hours he did not leave till 3pm. He was irritated that he had not yet received his fixed GoPro and was still having to use his old hero 5 model which did not provide the same quality. He cycled watching the streets slip by, enjoying the sight of relics, Hutongs and traditional buildings set against the modern architecture of the metropolis. He loved the ride and felt so good when he arrived at the school he decided to make sure he cycled home. The lesson was with 5 students learning to read English. For the first hour the kids were engaged and focused by the 2nd hour they had lost their interest, were clearly tired from the rigours of their school day and made it a difficult class to manage. As he left the building he saw two of his students clambering on the building without any concern for their safety and which summed up their behaviour perfectly. He cycled home and by the time he arrived he felt tired by the exertion and a little weak from hunger. He managed to make it through the evening by watching ‘The Kid Detective’ which despite the juvenile sounding title proved to be an unusual, dark humoured piece that had charm and surprises. The need for food weighed heavily and the best place for him was bed and sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was aching from the walking and cycling he had done over the previous days and on 4 April 2021 he experienced small feeling of relief that the whirlwind tour was coming to end. He was aware that Easter Sunday was dawning in the UK but here in China though there was some recognition commercially of the season it was also a public holiday as it was Tomb Sweeping day and a public holiday from the 3rd to the 5th. Tomb Sweeping Day (清明节, Qīngmíng jié) is a one-day Chinese holiday that has been celebrated in China for centuries. The day is meant to commemorate and pay respect to a person’s ancestors. Thus, on Tomb Sweeping Day, families visit and clean the gravesite of their ancestors to show their respect. Weeds are removed from the gravesite and the tombstone is cleaned and swept. New earth is added and willow branches are placed atop the gravesite. Joss sticks are placed by the grave. The sticks are then lit and an offering of food and paper money is placed at the tomb. Paper money is burned while family members show their respect by bowing to their ancestors. Fresh flowers are placed at the tomb and some families also plant willow trees. In ancient times, the five-colored paper was placed underneath a stone on the grave to signify that someone had visited the grave and that it had not been abandoned. The origins of the festival has a narrative as long as the resurrection and needless to say there are echoes of the Easter celebration in the story of a wronged devoted official who was burned under a tree with his mother in a forest fire and the ancient ruler returning to the site the following year and findIng the dead tree was in full bloom, like a resurrection at a tomb site, made it a festival. They started the day early had breakfast and left by 8.30. A quick stroll through their number 1 scenic spot and took the subway to the station. The rest of the morning and afternoon were spent in transit. At home in Beijing surprised to see that spring blossom had well and truly sprung in the five day absence, they had time to un-pack, refresh and eat before going out to the theatre. The ticket had been booked for a performance in January as he had never been to the Poly Theatre which he regularly passed but with the sudden resurgence of a number of Covid cases it had been cancelled and rescheduled for 4 April. He had thought he might never make it but here he was in April of 2021 attending the show. The play ‘Ghetto’ by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol had premiered in 1984 and had been a hit at the National Theatre in 1989. He had not seen it but he was familiar with the story having read a synopsis but this proved to be unnecessary as the play was performed with English subtitles. This meant for once he was not left pondering what was being said and could appreciate the play for the drama that it was. It was the true story of life in the Vilna Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania and though it could not be called life enhancing as it was told through the eyes of a group of actors who despite the murder of many of their race and faith were given a theatre to perform in and told to make appropriate theatre for the survivors, it had music and elements of comedy. This was a relief as it 3 hours long. But passed quickly and was a wonderful piece of theatre that he could see the Chinese actors and audience relished. It was a splendid way to have spent an Easter, Tomb sweeping day and he went to sleep more than satisfied with his lot.
Nicholas Quirke was intending to relax on 5 April 2020 but it seemed Peng had other ideas. Admittedly the morning was slow and relatively peaceful, though keeping up with the blog was a paramount concern for him and he downloaded video and photographs and attempted to get everything in order. There was another Chinese restaurant Qiye Jordan chan that was using plant-based meat in its recipes and anxious to try out their style of dishes they were going to a Hopson One mall in the west of the city. The meal was served with a seven up with a salted lemon. Quite a taste sensation. He had a logon berry sorbet at Savage Mill then went to the cinema They were seeing ‘Eleven Chapters’ at Daguanlou cinema, located in the middle of Dashilar Hutong. It was China’s first picture house and was opened by Ren Qingtai, a pioneer photographer who directed China’s first film and founded the country’s first movie studio. The first film, Dingjun Mountain, was an excerpt of Peking opera and was screened at the historical cinema in 1905. Interestingly he noted that its sound equipment was made at 718 Factory – now the 798 Art District., Remarkably he was able to see a film in the same spot and he felt himself commingling with the ghosts of turn of the century China. The cinema had a similar aura to his beloved Duke of York’s in Brighton and he was excited to be attending. It was then with a heavy heart and a sigh that as the film began they discovered there were no English subtitles. He tried to follow the action but it was a film full of talk and he was lost. He doubted that he could sit in incomprehension for two hours and disappointed they left. Thay walked round the hutong and discovered a Peking Opera Theatre theatre and to the amusement of onlookers he posed as an artist. They were close to the Changxiang Hutong which Peng had never been to and for once Nicholas was able to act as guide around the streets of the waterside hutong and he even discovered some sights some very inappropriate that he had not seen before, including a visit to a public toilet that he thought he would never want crouch and use. It was a good day for a walk, the temperature was high and sky blue and they took a leisurely stroll home stopping to buy some snacks for the evening movie. They discovered that a restaurant they used to get vegetable Roujiamo (Chinese burgers) were now doing a plant based filling and they stopped to sample the new delight. The movie they watched was the Oscar nominated ‘Mack’ a film he loved because its subject was the writing of Citizen Kane and was a history he was more than familiar with. The black and white cinematography echoed the wonderful revolutionary work of Greg Toland, Peng however had never seen Orson Welles masterpiece and despite Gary Oldman’s great performance, a cracking script and the style he was bewildered by it and if the manner of telling a story leaves the audience puzzlers and unsatisfied it can’t be doing its job. Exhausted by explaining the film he was relieved to finally go to sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was stood on the shore of the Pearl River delta looking across the bay from Shenzhen at Hong Kong on 3 April 2021 and if it wasn’t for the situation with his visa and the Covid 19 situation, it would be the perfect time to visit. Unfortunately, if he were to go it was a unlikely that he could return to China Mainland at this point and he would have to content himself with gazing at the view and pondering on when this might all come to an end. The modern metropolis he was in seemed far away as he stood on the peaceful shoreline looking at its impressive skyline, watching herons, and shoals of fish and luxuriating amongst the tropical vegetation and enjoying it’s accompanying temperature. The had a long, serene walk along the promenade, stopped for a tea before making their way back to the city for some lunch. Getting to the subway from where they ended up was a problem and they ordered a Didi. As they waited a youth cigarette in hand came and just stood staring at him. He was surprised by the scrutiny as this thriving city seemed seemed relatively cosmopolitan compared to what he had experienced. Lunch was at an establishment called Nom Wah which had actually begun life in china town in New York. They were serving some of their dishes with plant based meat and it was the ideal place to eat before taking a look at some of the skyscrapers that the city boasted and dominated its views. They couldn’t have lunch without an accompanying bowl or two of Tong Sui and they cycled to another location to taste the delights of the recommended brand. They had moved through the two cities at a furious pace and feeling the strain they decided to back to the hotel to freshen up and relax. On the way they needed something cool and found what they thought was pure hawthorn ice lolly’s but turned out to be chilled caramelised hawthorns on a stick. The main event of the rest of the day was to visit the The Ping An International Finance Centre and see the city at night from above. It is a 115-story, 599 m (1,965 ft) supertall skyscraper which was designed by the American architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and was completed in 2017, becoming the tallest building in Shenzhen, the 2nd tallest building in China and the 4th tallest building in the world. It also broke the record of having the highest observation deck in a building at 562 m (1,844 ft). Nicholas was going even higher, though he would be safely encased in glass. They were given a demonstration before taking the super fast lift The views were amazing and having seen Hong Kong from ground level he could now kook down on it from above. Once more the immense and intimidating landscape of the city he had been in was diminished to pieces of Lego from the great height. The building was taller 100m than the World Trade Centre had been and he could not help but remember the plight of those trapped in the attack who had flung themselves to their death rather than be burned and it filled him with a chill and sense of doom that he found difficult to shake off. On their return to earth they were compelled to finish the night with a final couple of bowls of Tong Sui before they would head back to Beijing the next day. Tired but satisfied and with thoughts of dieting he collapsed into bed and a fitful sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was not a great lover of heights and though he was never put off by flying, by scaling towers and mountains he always approached them with some trepidation and on 2 April 2021 looking down on the world from 499m he did with caution and a mildly increased heart rate. They were departing Guangzhou that day but he could not leave without going up the city’s iconic dominating feature. At almost forty pounds the price was prohibitive though Nicholas at 60 could get a cheaper ticket and as it was likely that it would be the only time he was there then it seemed foolish not to go. After much deliberation Peng decided to join him and they cycled to the tower after their final breakfast in the hotel. They compensated for the lack of food they could eat by visiting the Family mart across the street who sold a very tasty Su Bao. The VIP ticket gave them access to 4 levels with the top being in the open air and 499m high. They stopped on the observation floor where there was a glass bottomed section they could walk out onto and see the scarily open view beneath their feet. There was a a night view floor and one with a fun fair experience which he really did not want to try and then the open air observation deck. They got told off for sticking the Go Pro over the edge to film and Peng had an argument with the officials as it only said don’t stick parts of your body over the edge. As a result they were then subjected to continual scrutiny over the 30 minutes they took to savour the truly spectacular views on repeated 360 degree tours to make the most of the astronomical ticket price they had parted with to enjoy the pleasure. It was high, very high and even the towing structures he felt dwarfed by at ground level appeared diminished. They eventually returned to earth and treated themselves too a final Tong Sui of ginger and black sesame before taking a taxi to the train station and travelling to Shenzhen. It was only an hour long train ride and he sat back and enjoyed the views through the countryside and the urban sprawl. As they were arriving in the city he say a building decorated with vintage looking logo’s and bill boards which turned out to be a new WenHeYou mall which, coincidentally was opening that day. They decided to return to the vicinity later to have a look and be among the first to see this new virally active social network spot. They took the subway to the hotel and walked from the station, though they followed a pointlessly diverted path through a strip of land that was being reclaimed as park and which, they dubbed Shenzhen’s no 1 tourist spot. Naturally, once they had checked in they went to look for something to eat and stopped a a restaurant that specialised in Chang Fen another pancake style dish that was native to the area. Shenzhen sits on the east bank of the Pearl River estuary bordering Hong Kong. In 1978 it was a fishing town whose train station was the last stop on the Chinese mainland section of railway but following the institution of the policy of “reform and opening-up” in 1979 Shenzhen has rapidly created a cityscape resulting from a vibrant economy—made possible by foreign direct investment. It was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world in the 1990s and the 2000s and now has a population estimated to be 20 million. The buildings were towering with Ping An Building being the 4th highest in the world. They cycled next to the new 20,000 square meters complex they had seen from the train but this was its opening day and there were literally thousands crowds swarming around and an unbelievably long queue. They were not going to waste time standing in line and when they later discovered that at its zenith there were 20,000 in queue with in excess 50,000 having passed through its portals they were relieved not to have wasted any time. They went instead to the Children’s Palace where the modern art gallery and the enormous civic centre sit. They sat in. Bar, Gaggas drinking tea and eating fries to wait for the sun to set to see the city lights. The walk through the vast civic centre was awe inspiring, with people dancing, skateboarding and the lights shimmering. The evening finished with a trip to a bar which specialised in sorbets and they were given a taste of every flavour. He finally settled on Longan and noticed a poster for ‘A Brighter Summer Day’ amongst they decor and made him think of his sons whom he immediately contacted and had an enjoyable exchange. The pace hadn’t slowed down and his muscles ached and his stomach was full by the time the day ended and it was a relief to take to his bed and sleep.
Nicholas Quirke was introduced to another of China’s mythological giants, Mazu with almost as much magnitude as The Jade Emperor on 1 April 2021 when they visited a temple dedicated to the Queen of Heaven. Despite a history of over 2,200 years and having been a major terminus of the maritime Silk Road, Guangzhou was not renowned for its relics. It still serves as a major port and transportation hub, and Mazu (媽祖) also known as Tian Shang Sheng Mu (天上圣母) or Tian Hou (天后) Chinese Goddess of Sea and Patron Deity of is a Chinese sea goddess. She is the deified form of the purported historical Lin Mo a Fujianese shamaness whose life span dated from 960 to 987 and was revered after her death as a deity of seafarers, including fishermen and sailors. Her worship spread throughout China’s coastal regions as she was thought to roam the seas, protecting her believers through miraculous interventions. She is now generally regarded by her believers as a powerful and benevolent Queen of Heaven. The temple located by the Nansha Harbour area was a 2 hour subway ride from their location and after a swift hotel breakfast they left early. It was of course, rush hour and in one of China’s 3 largest cities with an estimated urban population of 14,904,400 the station was teeming and they actually had to queue to get onto the train. Fortunately not many were travelling to the port and after 15 minutes he was able to get a seat and enjoy the journey, most of which was overground and afforded him some good views of the suburbs. The design of the port station was tremendous, echoing an under sea world with lights resembling seagulls and a ticket office in the shape of a galleon. They walked the 1.5km to the temple and found themselves on the the harbour shoreline of the Pearl River Delta from which they could see the city of Shenzhen and lying beyond that, Hong Kong. The cargo ships moored off the coast gave the view across the water an eerie feeling which the grey tinted skies enhanced. The Nansha Tianhou temple overlooking the delta stretched up the Dajiao mountainside and was dominated by a large statue of Mazu which, fascinatingly sported a small jauntily placed shrub and a pagoda at the summit. They climbed through the various halls up a series of steep steps with the view of the waters frowning into the South China Sea becoming more spectacular. When they reached the top and examined the Nanling tower, built as a navigational marker and around the saying ‘Left-cyan dragon’ which, remained an obscure unexplained reference on the guide. They were unable to go up the tower but they were able to enjoy the views from the peak. They ignored the offer of transport and chose instead to climb higher and explore what hat been a strategically placed military base from the 19th century. Though clearly marked it was quite obvious that these were paths rarely trod but the walk around the eight canon bases provided them with not only an education and some wonderful views but shocks and laughs. Lured by Peng into climbing in an alcove with open doors he patiently waited as the doors were shut plunging him into almost total darkness. He knew he would be filmed when the doors were opened but on glimpsing in the half light a number of scurrying creatures around the door he experienced a sudden sharp feeling of fear and let out a cry of ‘Lizards’! as he burst through the portal. He was a little ashamed by his reaction to the harmless geckos but the incident gave them much merriment. The Beijing community contacted Peng while they were there asking for his details in preparation of the inoculation. They followed the undisturbed path and steps down to its logical and marked conclusion only to find the gate locked and covered with barbed wire. Undeterred and determined not to climb back up the hill they scrambled through an gap in the fence and hanging onto branches and finding footholds they dropped down the perilous incline onto terra firma. They explored the shoreline, paddled in the dirty waters and started back the station. Along the way he encountered another stall where the seller was stripping what looked like bamboo but turned out to be sugar cane from which the juice was then extracted. And it was then that he had his first taste of pure sugar water. It’s green hue was not appealing but it was sweet and in the heat very refreshing. They also passed a bold Red decommissioned Cannon which was oddly and strategically pointed at Taiwan. On the two hour journey back they decided to have Tong Sui before going to eat at Mays in the K11 Mall. The 4 hot dishes when they were served were unusually tepid and had to be sent back. On discovering there was a restaurant in the mall where they could get vegan ice cream they excitedly went to the eye catching, theatrical I-Dama. They ordered a dragon fruit and mango ice and a plate of chocolate brownies of the exquisite. They had to wait a while for the cake and were surprised by the offer of a free ice cream. They were given the durian flavour the fruit of which he had never eaten and he was surprised by it’s compelling, almost rancid taste. The walk back to the hotel provided another view of the city and the Canton Tower at night. It had been another day full of visual and oral treats and it was with a well sated mind and stomach that he took to his bed and sleep.